Here to return to
A FOREIGNER, noting the enthusiasm with which Englishmen visit their old Cathedrals and Abbeys, might imagine a profitable reconstruction of English history from a series of pilgrimages to its mediæval military remains. Certainly there are prehistoric and British earthworks, especially in the English hill-country; there are the Roman forts — the first border-holds of England — dotted along the wall of Hadrian and the Saxon shore; at their highest navigable points many English rivers flow past Danish camps. Castle Hill, at Thetford, may be put down as Anglo-Saxon, while, as the Bayeux Tapestry proves beyond a doubt, Hastings is contemporary in time and identical in situation with the Norman invasion. Why not then see the whole pageant of history in these Norman fortresses, in the adulterine castles raised under Stephen, in the works of that great builder Henry III, and of his son Edward I, Conqueror of Wales? And why not in the Cinque Ports; in Bodiam, a manor house fortified under Richard II for the protection of Hythe in case of a French landing; and in deserted Amberley, raised by the Bishops of Chichester? The chain extends link by link through the Wars of the Roses to the sea-coast forts fostered by Henry VIII and Elizabeth; it includes Peveril, in the Peak district, around which Scott wove his romance of the Stuarts, and Oxford, defended by Prince Rupert; and even — a weak link indeed — the Strawberry Hill Gothic mansions, so typical of the eighteenth century; a chain which did not end with the Martello towers of the Napoleonic wars, for are not English cliffs to-day still crowned by trenches and barbed wire? With these earthworks English warfare returned to its earliest beginnings.
A foreigner with a keen eye to distinguish between true and false would, indeed, derive profit from such a pilgrimage. But he would have to realize that few English castles are faithful witnesses to the past. Of the adulterine castles characteristic of the anarchy of Stephen’s reign, hardly one can be identified with certainty to-day — it may be, indeed, that earthworks commonly thought to be British are relics of these very castles. Pontefract, which once was called the Troy of England, is now a heap of rubble in a garden; Colchester, built by the Conqueror against the Danes, has become the shelter for a museum; York and Lincoln are now used as prisons, which, as one writer on the subject naïvely remarks, “naturally bars access to the public”; Peveril has gained a mistaken fame amongst tourists, for Haddon Hall appears to have been the real scene of Scott’s novel. Such a man would be wise to concentrate on those castles which preserve or reconstruct their original strength of outline, which indicate their former purpose and importance. And of these castles Alnwick is one.
Although the castle of Alnwick has been rebuilt, it still boasts of the name of Percy, a family as famous in Border literature as the strongholds they maintained; it still stands prepared for a siege as it did in the time of Harry Hotspur, allowing for the improbable event of an army approaching with trebuchets and mangonels; with antiquarian pride the Dukes of Northumberland have restored to it much of the apparatus of defence; while the stone “defenders” — figures of bowmen on the battlements meant to frighten the enemy — still mount guard over the gate house. It is, in fact, an excellent example of the creation of a modern country house without prejudice to the form of a mediæval castle.
Lying on a slight slope from the south bank of the river Aln, the castle was strategically important in its command of the road between Berwick and Newcastle, which made it inevitably a focus of Border warfare. Its known history began soon after the Conquest, with the knowledge that the family of De Vesci was in possession of the site in the reign of Henry I. Eustace FitzJohn, who married into the De Vesci family, is commonly believed to have built the castle. The whole formation of the building points to the date at which he held the barony, with which the innermost gateway and the lower part of the outer curtain wall bear evident traces of identification. So the period of the castle’s building may be placed in the first half of the twelfth century.
Throughout its reconstructions — in the fourteenth century, in 1760, and again in 1854 — the plan of the castle has not been altered to any great extent. The mound is covered with domestic buildings, and the whole surrounded by a curtain wall making an enclosure which is divided into two wards. FitzJohn probably built the curtain walls, levelled the mound to its present height, and replaced by his shell keep in stone the wooden donjon and palisade, which, together with the domestic buildings within the palisade, formed the earliest castle on this spot. The pure form of a shell keep has been obscured, however, by the present cluster of towers and connecting buildings which evolved as military needs became less pressing than the desire for comfort and splendour.
Still it never lost the character of a shell keep, for, if its possible use as an ultimate refuge had ceased altogether to have weight with the Percys, they would have copied the style of Windsor by building their palace in one of the two wards.
Of the castle’s many interesting features one is struck at once by the outer and inner gatehouses. The outer gatehouse, fronted by the barbican, projects altogether nearly a hundred feet outside the west curtain. Originally the castle ditch, which passed between barbican and gatehouse, had a loop passing in front of the barbican, so that the gatehouse was protected by two drawbridges and a portcullis, in addition to its flanking rectangular buttresses corbelled out above into oblong turrets containing shelters. An enemy force might well hesitate before attempting to enter here, as the long, narrow passage of the barbican would shepherd an attacking party together like sheep in a pen. The danger of an attempt to turn the flank of the gatehouse by a breach in the curtain wall was met by a series of flanking towers, from which an enemy who did succeed in forcing an entrance to one of the two wards would be assailed in the rear as well as from the towers of the keep. On the north, towards the river, the keep was formerly unprotected by the curtain wall, as though inviting an attack from a quarter more easily defended by the broad ditch and by the natural slope of the river bank, which was artificially scarped. Communications between the outer and inner wards were safeguarded by the middle gate, and the entrance to the keep in the inner ward by a gatehouse, evidently built in the fourteenth century around the gateway which protected the citadel of Eustace FitzJohn. Of this a fine Norman arch remains.
No doubt a lover of romance whose imagination is most easily stirred by the obvious would linger long over the prison chambers in the arches of the gates, complete with underground oubliettes for refractory prisoners, but these were probably used more often as a repository of herrings and salt meat than for despairing captives. More interesting, however — especially to an artist — is the picturesque well within the courtyard of the keep. The hood of the well has the form of three niches within a containing arch. The well shaft rises through the central niche, and in the other two are wooden wheels set round with pegs for the hoisting of buckets. Above is a statue of a monk blessing the source, probably an eighteenth-century embellishment. The mediæval architect lavished his ornamentation upon the most necessary features of his building, thereby differing from his modern successor, to whom ornament often appears a means of filling up blank spaces; and this well is a reminder that a siege was not a highly adventurous series of sorties, or of hand-to-hand fighting along the walls, but a test of passive endurance, until either the supplies of food and drink failed the besieged, or the army of the besieger melted away to their fields and flocks.
In all Border warfare Alnwick was one of the strongest fortresses on the English side. In its earliest days, when it could have been little more than a palisaded mound, Malcolm III of Scotland was killed there by an English knight of Robert de Mowbray’s levy raised on behalf of William Rufus. Near the Ravine tower in the north-east curtain wall, variations in the masonry mark what is known as the “Bloody Gap,” said traditionally to be the position of a breach made by the Scots; but a modern historian, more restrained than the legendmonger, declares that it more probably marks the site of a fallen curtain tower, and as Eustace FitzJohn built the Norman castle some time after the date of this affray, the truth is, unfortunately, on the side of the historian.
Another Scottish monarch met a less dignified fate outside the walls of the castle of FitzJohn. William the Lion had invaded England on behalf of Henry II’s rebel sons. He was besieging Alnwick with a small force of 500 knights, while, unknown to him, Odonel de Umfraville, Bernard de Balliol, and other northern barons were advancing to its relief throughout the night, by forced march and in fog.
Andrew Lang well describes the scene in his history of Scotland:—
“So thick was the air that some were for returning. Balliol, however, insisted on an advance. They passed unseen by Warkworth, then beleaguered by the Scots, and when the cloud lifted found themselves near Alnwick Castle, which was in friendly hands. Thither they rode, when they beheld a party of knights tilting in a meadow. It was like a scene in the ‘Morte d’Arthur’: the blind advance in an unknown enchanted land, the apparition of the castle above the breaking cloud, the sun shining on the armour of the strange tilting knights. To them the Yorkshire horsemen seemed part of one of their own scattered companies; but when William marked the English cognizances, he, for he was one of the Scottish tilters, rode straight at the ranks of England. His horse was pierced by a spear, and the greatest prize of feudal warfare, a hostile King, with his lords of Norman names, was taken.”
William the Lion was ignominiously led away to Newcastle with his legs tied beneath his horse’s belly; and the park of Alnwick to-day glories in two monuments marking the downfall of Scottish kings.
The line of de Vesci continued until the end of the thirteenth century, when the castle came into the hands of the Percys, with whose name it is inseparably connected. The history of that family was for centuries the history of England, of Scotland, and, in fact, of France as well, so that in the restorations of the fourteenth century was combined the experience of those who appreciated the necessities of Border warfare with the military knowledge learnt under the Black Prince in France. In the rebellion of the Percys against Henry IV, then, the capture of Alnwick must have been one of the most serious problems which the King was called upon to face. A memory of Harry Hotspur lingers in a rectangular projection of the north-east curtain, which is traditionally called Hotspur’s Chair; and it may have been one of the hero’s favourite posts of observation. But Henry IV was strong enough to take Alnwick in 1405. Hotspur had already fallen at Shrewsbury in 1403, and the Earl of Northumberland shared the violent fate that overtook so many of his family at Bramham Moor in 1408.
The interest of Alnwick lies as much in its past history as in its present state. It began as one of the first outposts set up by the victorious Norman barons against the Scots. It became the possession of a family proud of a name that went back to the early days of the Northmen, a name which was to become an integral part of English literature and history. Alnwick maintains in our day an importance appropriate to its position in the Middle Ages. The struggle for power between the baronage and the monarchy is forgotten, and the castle of the Percys has become their palace.